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One of the world’s most unique cities, created by a fascinating blend of history and diverse cultures that manifests itself in alluring architecture and delicious tastes. Get dazzled by Byzantine mosaics in the Chiese did Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (aka Martorana) and Cappella Palatina, the Arabian domes of the Chiesa di San Cataldo, and the Baroque-a-palooza interior of Chiesa del Gesu (Casa di Professa).
In La Kalsa, the area with an exotic Arabic look, visit the 15th century Museo Regionale Abatellis, to experience such masterpieces as the Renaissance Annunciation by Antonella da Messina. Then enjoy a tour of the Palazzo Mirto, with its elegantly decorated salons, to get a glimpse of how the Palermitani aristocracy lived in the 18th century.
For quintessential Sicilian entertainment, see a puppet show by Argento or Cuticchio, where dramatic tales of medieval knights in shining armor are re-enacted.
Via Liberta and its surroundings are full of fashion boutiques, such as Furla for leather, Pollini for to-die-for shoes, and Carieri & Carieri for elegant menswear.
The art of Sicilian ceramics lives on at Tre Erre Ceramiche, where you’ll find vibrantly painted tableware for reasonable prices. For local handicrafts, head to Via Bara all’Olivella, home to many artisan shops, including La Coppola (for berets) and Roberto Intorre for contemporary jewelry.
It’s fun to wander through the Mercato delle Pulci (Flea Market), which operates daily behind the Cathedral, selling antique and second hand treasures. To experience the soul of Palermo, stroll through its lively morning food markets. Capo and Ballaro are best for blending in with the natives, surrounded by colorful, abundant displays of fruits and vegetables, and glistening fish. Capers, almonds, and saffron make wonderful souvenirs, and you can also pick up house wares. Vucciria is more tourist-filled, so postcards and trinkets are available there.
Specialties here burst with fresh, complex flavors, mixing influences from all the cultures that’ve passed through over the centuries. You’ll find lots of seafood offerings,pasta con sarde (with sardines), and caponata (a flavorful eggplant-based dish), served elegantly at Ristorante Santandrea (reservations essential), and also deliciously prepared at the less expensive Capricci di Siciliana and Piccolo Napoli (lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Fri & Sat). For a low-priced lunch with the locals, Trattoria Supra I Mura (near the Capo market) or Zia Pina (near Vucciria) are tops.
Palermo’s street food scene is fantastico, starring savory treats such as panelle (chick pea fritters), arancini (stuffed rice balls), sfincini (thick pizza topped with tomato and onion), and pane ca’meusa (spleen and cheese stuffed into a sesame seed roll). You’ll find stands for these at outdoor markets, or head to the legendary Antica Focacceria San Francesco, which also serves great pasta and seafood dishes.
Save room for sweets at Pasticceria Bar Mazzara, where the cannoli, cassata (ricotta filled cake), and gelato are superb.
Enchanting drinking spots include Il Gattopardo Bar at the Grand Hotel et des Palms, (a jewel-box cocktail oasis), Spinnato Caffe, where you can sit at outside tables and also enjoy delicious pastries, and the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa Wine Bar, in a La Kalsa neighborhood cultural center. Also, in a wonderfully renovated building that was formerly stables for a seaside palazzo, is the Kursaal Kahlsea wine bar, where you can enjoy drinks, along with their bookstore, restaurant, and music events.
Every evening young Parlermitani gather at the bars and restaurants in Piazza Olivella (home to Casablanca) and Vecchio Borgo (close to the port). You’ll be welcomed to join in on the partying that spills out to the sidewalks until the wee hours.
The 5-star Hilton Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, 3km from Palermo centro, is an Art Nouveau gem, set on the sea and surrounded by tropical gardens, with a pool, tennis courts, spa, and excellent restaurants. Top 4-stars, closer to the main attractions in the historic center, are the classically styled Grand Hotel et des Palms and the modern Hotel Porta Felice—both have spas. Hotel Letizia is a charming 3-star in the La Kalsa area. There are lots of outstanding B&Bs. In the higher price range, good ones are Le Terrazze, an elegant converted 18th century palazzo, and Palazzo Pantaleo, near the opera house. Lower cost deals include Nimia and Casa degli Artisti.
With so much to see, it’s great to take a walking tour with Passage to Sicily, a cultural organization of native experts who can give you an insider’s view of the city’s gastronomy, art, or archaeology.
The Giardino Inglese is a lovely spot to relax amidst palm and ficus trees, with a playground and carousel for the kiddies. Don’t miss a stop at the nearby Le Cremolose, for their delicious offerings–fruit or nut flavored thick granite (shaved ices).
There is also the amazing Orto Botanico, where you can wander through curvy paths amidst palms, cactus, papyrus, and unusual species. The Botanical Garden connects you to the Villa Giulia, a delightful public park, adorned with fountains and statues, and then the Foro Italico, Palermo’s seaside promenade.
A short trip (10km) will take you to one of Italy’s most awe inspiring sights, the 12th century Monreale Cathedral, with its masterpiece mosaics that sparkle over every inch of the walls and ceiling of the vast sanctuary. Stick around for lunch at Taverna del Pavone, where the pastas are wonderful.
Or visit the seaside town of Cefalu (70km from Palermo)–wander the quiet medieval vias, relax on the beautiful beach, and have a delicious seafood meal at Al Porticciolo, overlooking the harbor.
A drive south takes you to the charming lakeside village of Piana degli Albanesi, where an Albanian community has flourished since the 15th century. According to Sicilians, this peaceful place is home to the island’s best cannoli—head to Extra Bar Petta to taste for yourself.
The 19th century Teatro Massimo is one of Italy’s most beautiful theatres, presenting a repertoire of operas, symphonies, and dance all year long. Even if your visit doesn’t coincide with a performance, take a tour of the magnificent building. Nearby is the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, built pre-Massimo, that presents smaller classical concerts. For jazz, check out The Brass Group, a foundation that hosts events in various venues throughout the city, including the unique Chiesa dello Santa Maria Spasimo.
I Candelai and Bier Garten are two of the many hot spots in town for rock and roll and disco. And if you’re in the Flamenco guitar mood, head to La Cueva, where Catalonia comes to Palermo.
Visiting churches on Sunday mornings when masses are taking place and touring is prohibited.